Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team
By Kenny Stocker | 01, Nov, 2009
Behind the scenes at Alpkit HQ.
We don't ride in everyday, and we feel pretty guilty when we don't, especially if it's not raining. We all converge in Ilkeston from the direction of Nottingham or Derby - on average our rides take about 40mins, it takes a little longer on the single speed! It is a drag facing a hill first thing in the morning but you arrive at work with a healthy glow. We really should do it every day, but sometimes it is just easy to find an excuse.. dropping the kids at school, visiting our suppliers during the day or nipping down Holme Pierrepont in the evening.
At the moment Nick is trying to uprate his Genesis IO and it's quite an interesting process to watch. The last time he paid full price for a sleeping bag was 20 years ago, that's way back before he started working at Blacks. However in the bike world he is like a lamb to the slaughter, he knows enough to be interested, but not enough to save himself from inappropriate purchases from companies telling him their stuff is cool. 900 lumen bike lights - they sound like a great idea but does he really need them? We know how much an LED costs so why do they cost £500? It really does make us think about the stuff we sell.
Running a tight yet agile company would not be possible without each of us knowing what is going on. The Board forms a central hub at the heart of our office. Each week we gather around it for an 'all hands' strategic planning and operational affairs meeting. SPOAMs helps us to put to one side the rush of the weekend just long enough to focus our attention on what needs to get done during the week ahead, some of us enjoy them for other reasons.
It goes without saying that orders are our lifeblood at Alpkit HQ. The more the better! Printing them off is one of the first tasks of the day, once the coffee has been brewed of course. We still print each one out manually. That will change as we grow and switch to a new e-commerce system but for the time being, although it seems a little long-winded, it does mean that we're very aware of who our customers are on a daily basis.
We continue to print off the orders in batches until the final print run just after 2 pm which is our cut-off time for same-day despatch. As they are printed they are sorted into destination and delivery method and then are taken out to the packing desk in the warehouse.
Although our phones are named after robots - Jenni's is called Marvin, the one on the customer service hot desk is called R2D2, Twiki is out in the warehouse - they're manned by humans. We have just the one phone line. If we're here, we answer it. If we're not here, we don't. We don't have a call waiting service. If we're on the phone you get an engaged tone when you call us. We prefer this. No Greensleeves, no 'press button 1 for sales', no messing around.
As we are purely an online retailer, it is through our website that the vast majority of orders are placed. By asking our customers to enter their own orders, we save approximately eight hours' worth of administration a day - that's an entire day's work for someone!! This is how we're able to supply our products at such fantastic prices and despatch them the same day (if you place your order before 2 pm) However, sometimes our customers just need to talk to a human and that's why we're at the other end of the phone Monday to Friday. We can also be contacted by email during the week. We always answer emails the same day that we receive them. In fact, if we're not busy packing orders when your email arrives, we are often able to answer it as soon as it arrives in our inbox. Kenny's even been known to dip into the inbox and answer a few over the weekend.
People call us, and email us, for product advice, to place an order, to discuss delivery options, to talk about their product ideas or sometimes just to say thank you. Of course we do also get phone calls and emails from unhappy customers. It is our job to make them happy again. We recognise that excellent customer service is the backbone of Alpkit. It doesn't matter how good our products are, how funky our website is or how good we are at slacklining, if we don't keep our customers happy then we don't receive orders and we can't continue to function. We are very proud of our products but we know that things can go wrong. We have a simple rule that we stick to - if a product or an order goes wrong and it's our fault, we will do our utmost to sort it out as quickly as possible. If something has gone wrong and it's the fault of the customer, we will do our best to resolve it it the cheapest, fastest way.
We may not have the most technologically advanced website, but we try hard to make sure that it reflects our personalities as best we can. Some of the site is very functional, it has to be as we know our customers just want to get their goodies and get on the hill. We all know how frustrating it is when you can't find the checkout button or even a phone number to give you reassurance that your order will get to you quickly. We have always wanted more from our site, we have wanted to involve our customers in the same way as we would if we were running a shop and you walked through the door. We are not quite there yet as we haven't worked out how to get a coffee to you while it is still hot.. but we are working on it.
Here at Alpkit we love shiny new things, but they don’t design themselves! We spend large amounts of time, effort and donuts coming up with new ideas and tweaking our existing products so that you guys will keep coming back for more!
There’s nothing the Product Guys love more than a morning’s doodling followed by getting stuck in to some serious prototyping; whether it’s bashing out a sample on the sewing machine or getting up to our elbows in hot glue and carbon fibre, the product development side of Alpkit is constantly ‘on it,’ working tirelessly to improve our range and add exciting new products!
We go to several shows each year and we always like to go the extra mile, to add something to the show rather than just turn up, take some cash and get out as quickly as possible. We take pride in the way we present ourselves and our work, that's partly because we do not have a physical shop to dress and rarely see all our products as a collection. A major part of this work is the 'point of sale' graphics designed to communicate information about our company, our products and of course our prices!
Investing in our own vinyl cutter has given us the flexibility to experiment as well as allowing us to offer a limited custom branding service on certain products. Keeping it in house does mean it is easier to experiment with ideas, but on the flip side it also means a lot of late nights!
One of the problems with selling online is that you can't pick up a product, fondle it, try it on, or compare it directly with other similar items. Ok, so we go to a few shows throughout the year but the majority of the time it means we need to back up our products with exceptional customer service, useful information and an efficient, friendly returns service. The first obstacle is of course conveying our products in as clear and accurate a way as possible. So good, simple product shots need to be taken of all the products that show all relevant details, colours and anything to help give the customer a good idea of what the product will look like when it arrives through their door. Here at Alpkit GHQ space can be a bit tight at times and so taking these shots can be a struggle, but overall we do a pretty good job. It is something that is fundamentally crucial in providing the best service possible and so we are always looking to improve the way in which we present our products.
But we are not just a shop, we are a brand as well and we don't like to leave it at just our products. Right from the start we didn't want to be a faceless brand that hides behind its retailers, so we've never shied away from putting ourselves in front of the camera in order to give you an insight into our company, who we are and why we are doing it. One major outlet for this has been our homepage, which has allowed us to hopefully put our personalities across a lot more. Sometimes these photo shoots have been known to bring the whole office to a standstill as we all get involved, but it's a good chance to delve into our fancy dress box. Photography and imagery has helped play an important role in helping us build a closer relationship with our customers than selling through shops could ever do.
Fortunately we don't have to spend all our time doing this, allowing us to make sure all the orders go out the door. But some things are unavoidable and we are not adverse to rolling our sleeves up, grabbing a cuppa and getting down to some of the more mundane jobs around the warehouse. All our boulder mat foam comes separate from the shells, so these need stuffing. We could send them out separately giving our customers the pleasure of wrestling with large pieces of foam, but perhaps we secretly enjoy it and it means you can get straight out on the rock. So this is just one job that needs to be done in order to prepare products for dispatch, others include making up combo packs of stuff bags and piecing together sets of zipgrips. Making use of this 'downtime' helps to make sure we can be as efficient as possible when it comes to packing the orders, but can also gives us an excuse for a good natter.
To be honest lunch is normally taken on the run, huddled around the packing table or worst of all sat hunched over a computer screen. It is an unfortunate fact that lunch always falls just at the time we need to get the post out of the door. It would be great if we could go for a run, a swim or maybe even a swift 9 holes down the local course.. but postie waits for no one. Despite this we have always thought it important to have an area where we can lie back and pick up a book or magazine. The Alpkit library includes an ever expanding selection of maps and guidebooks that feed our appetite and help us imagine we are somewhere slightly more glamorous.
It’s not all hard work here at Alpkit HQ, now and again we all like to down tools and take some time out. Whether it’s working on a new move on the slackline, cruising the car park north shore, trying to fit Kenny in a haul bag (he goes!) or just desperately trying to nail the crossword before the Chunk wanders in and steals the glory, we take our down time seriously!
Sometimes we even escape the bright lights of Derbyshire for team excursions; from Vin Chaud in the Ecrins in January to Manx ale on the Isle of Man last month, 2009 has seen team Alpkit unplugged and chilling in Argentière, Friedrichshafen, Ailefroide and Val Di Mello, as well as closer to home; from Devon, via both ends of Wales and the Peak District all the way north to Skye!
There are some deadlines that are non-negotiable, deadlines that have been sacred since Alpkit was born. If you order something before 2pm we send it out to you same day.. we don't sit around picking our noses or playing pool until you ring asking where the Fat Airic is which you needed for the bank holiday.. we pick it off the shelf, wrap it up and send it. It really is that simple.
So remember when you place your order at 13:59 precisely.. just as we think we are all bagged up for the day and can get stuck into that cheese toasty, you are starting a chain reaction of events that resonates through AKGHQ triggering preprogrammed Alpkit staff to drop what they are doing so that your parcel does not miss the post collection.
We love our Macs at Alpkit. Between us we have over 100 years' experience using them. It took us a few years to convince Nick to make the switch but it only took Jenni a year. This is our new tower server that will be serving us up our email, calendars, product specs, account info. Fingers crossed we'll even be able to connect to it whilst sitting down with a nice red at home. We felt it only necessary to build it its own cupboard to live in... after all the big companies have server cupboards.
It's strange living life on the web, we thought it would be a very faceless business. The reality is we know every one of our customers' names, but we do like to get out every now and again and put faces to those names. It's great to stretch our legs and see what's going on at the frontline and it's an important part of life at Alpkit. We try to attend as many events as we can and their locations can be as varied as their audience. One weekend we could be sheltering from the rain under a gazebo running a kayak competition and the following weekend we could find ourselves in the Alps trying our best to describe the benefits of our sleeping bags in French. Wherever we are, as long as the coffee is hot and the beer cold we'll have a good time.
A normal week sees the product guys having to sort out a variety of repairs. These can range from customers trashing the kit, to errors the factory has made. Some brands simply put stuff in the bin, but Nick's a bit of a hoarder and hates chucking stuff away. We had a few Gourdons that had various faults, so Nick just repaired some and put them into the garage sale, cut all the straps off the others and made them in to some stuff bags for bits of stuff hanging around. He's also just finished making the frame bag that Paul Errington is taking on the Arrowhead. Instead of making it with our usual prototype pink Nick managed to make it out of recycled Gourdons, so he's even got a welded window in it. We're hoping it doesn't fall out at -50c. The only problem is that Nick would quite like to keep it, especially as Paul has the same frame as Nick.
Re-stocking is everyone's favourite job! The thrill of seeing the shelves so enticingly bare, the hidden promise of the racks of boxes in the bulk storage warehouse, the glorious sight of a thousand zip pullers just waiting to be tied together in fives; re-stocking really is what makes it all worthwhile.
Constant arguments over who got to refill the shelves at the end of each day eventually drove Nick to introduce a rota system, limiting us to a paltry single re-stocking session a week. The union was considering strike action, but as this would have served only to further reduce the opportunity for carrying boxes from one room to another and emptying their contents onto shelves it was deemed counter-productive.
As a company we work hard to keep our paper waste to a minimum but it's not realistic to operate a totally paper-free office. The VAT man for one isn't a fan. He likes to see all the daily numbers printed out in black and white. However the beauty of our e-commerce software is that only one piece of paper is produced per order. The address label is stuck on your parcel and we keep the rest of the invoice. We don't send a copy with the parcel as one is automatically emailed as your order confirmation. At the end of the day, once we've reconciled each order and confirmed the payments, we file all the orders in numerical order. These files are what you'll hear us flicking through if you call us with an order query. All shipping information, picking or packing notes are jotted down on the original invoice as well as the initials of who packed your order so that if a mistake is made we know who's turn it is to buy the doughnuts. Orders from the last three months are kept in the office but older orders are filed upstairs in the attic. They soon rack up. We're going to have to move warehouse again soon just so that we can store all of our files!
There's a lot of hype and talk about the environment these days and it's an easy band wagon to jump onto. It gives you an edge, something to shout about, something to sit back and be proud of. However to know the true environmental impact of something takes a lot of research, which in turn can cost a lot of money. At Alpkit we don't feel the environment should even be considered by our marketing department... even if we had a marketing department. Since we began our philosophy has been if we can make an element of our business greener without affecting our product quality or service it's a no brainer. If we can re-use a box to send you your sleeping bag rather than using a nicely printed plastic bag, perfect. If we can find an organic t-shirt that is as a good a quality as a standard cotton one, excellent. If your delivery is on our way home we'll drop it off on the way, have the coffee ready. We just do what we can, when we can and we call this being environmentally responsible.
Most outdoorsy people have a shed, loft or a wardrobe with at least part of it, but sometimes all of it dedicated to kit. The most impressive was an outdoor instructor Nick used to work for. His house in Winster had a low beamed loft and he had two racks of stuff at least 3 or 4 meters long crammed full of kit. I should go back there if knew the house as I am sure you could open a museum with it. For an 18 year old guy, interested in kit it was Nirvana. ME Lightlines, Rohan superstriders, Koflach Ultras he had it all. My kit is now stored here at Alpkit, which makes going away a tedious process. In the old days I went away for the weekend and took my sleeping bag and foam camp mat. Now I fine tune the choice of bag with what I'm going to do. Lake District in November, maybe a Pipedream 400, um but what if it's a little frosty.. OK definitely a PipeDream 600. Ahhh.. what about the prototype pipedream synthetic then.. I'm totally covered.
In a dramatic and revealing piece of contemporary journalism Daisy Chayne infiltrates the inner sanctum of one of the outdoor industry's youngest and most animated playmakers.. Alpkit.com. With unique and unrestricted access to all areas of Alpkit's daily operation this reporter paints a brutally honest picture of a company tormented by the constant threat of postal strikes, high street shopping and depleted coffee reserves. Fact.